The sacrament that brings us back again and again

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A priest presides at Eucharistic Adoration during a prayer service for vocations. Photos: Gregory Shemitz
A priest presides at Eucharistic Adoration during a prayer service for vocations. Photos: Gregory Shemitz

It is a great joy for me to be back living at the cathedral and now celebrating Mass here with you all. By God’s grace granted in answer to many people’s prayers and mediated to me by the finest health professionals, I have made great strides towards full health since I fell seriously ill last Christmas.

I still have some distance to go and will continue to rely upon your care and patience with me.

With most sacraments once is enough: Baptism, Confirmation and Priestly Orders are once-for-all sacraments; Matrimony is also, for most people.

Yet Christians come back time and again for the Eucharist: at least weekly is the rule for Catholics and some come even more often.

Why is that? Have we nothing better to do? Are we gluttons for grace, addicted to hearing the Bible and receiving Holy Communion?

If so, there are worse addictions! And the fact is: we all need to hear the Word of God often, so it penetrates our ears and minds, converting, educating and inspiring us. There is much we are still to hear or realise in our lives and it’s good to give God’s Word a chance, by coming to hear it proclaimed and preached.

In our Gospel today we see the first intimation of the Eucharist (Lk 9:11-17). Christ welcomes the people and preaches to them at length about the kingdom of God; then, like at Mass, people bring forward bread and in this case fish, which is a symbol of Christ; He takes, blesses and breaks the miraculous Bread; and finally He directs it be distributed and reverently collected up. At Mass we become part of that miracle of word and sacrament.

Some of you may know the Danish film, Babette’s Feast, which won the 1988 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

Two ancient sisters, Martine and Philippa, live in a tiny village on the west coast of 19th century Jutland.

They maintain the memory of their father, the founder pastor of an austere sect which has sadly dwindled to a few white-haired and bickering believers.

The sisters take in Babette, a refugee from one of the French revolutions, not knowing she had been the leading chef in Paris.

For 14 years she is expected to cook bland meals appropriate to their ascetical religion.

But the sisters agree to Babette cooking a special dinner in honour of the founding pastor’s centenary, little guessing she will blow her entire winnings from the Paris lottery – 10,000 francs – on the meal.

Sumptuous and exotic ingredients, never before seen in that remote village, start arriving.

Fearing this will occasion the sin of sensual luxury, the sisters and their fellow believers agree to eat the meal politely but take no pleasure in it.

Despite their best efforts, however, Babette’s food and wine break down their distrust and abstemiousness, elevating them physically and spiritually.

Long-held grudges are forgotten and lost loves rekindled, so that a kind of mystical redemption falls upon their community.

Hinting at the Last Supper, the film reveals the power of meals to unite people and transcend differences.

One reason we keep coming back to Mass is, of course, so that we can be a support to and receive support from one another, as a community of saints and sinners, hopefully sinners-becoming-saints.

Worship is something human beings, as social animals, do together. So in today’s Gospel we are told five thousand had gathered – a whole cathedral full of people – and that Jesus directed they be divided not into ones-and-twos but into fifties: you might say that was the first division of a diocese into parishes.

So if we want to say a really big please or thank-you to God – and the Eucharist is our biggest please and thank-you – we naturally gather with others.

Yet another reason for returning to Mass each week, and receiving Holy Communion whenever we are well disposed, is that we are not just spiritual, social creatures but also bodily ones.

However unworldly, the devotees in Babette’s Feast were not angels. My own recent illness brought home to me, as nothing else could, that none of us is mere spirit or mind.

We are breathing, eating, sleeping, walking, talking beings and the importance of that is especially obvious when we are having trouble doing such things.

Months of sickness and disability have made me more aware of what many suffer for much of their lives, more concerned for them, and more appreciative regarding my own body and health.

It has also made me especially grateful to those who devote themselves to restoring health and function in people like me, through medicine, physiotherapy and nursing, as well as through pastoral care and friendship.

That we are physical and therefore vulnerable beings affects deeply how we attach to each other, become associates, friends, intimates.

Does any of this apply to our relationship with God who is, after all, pure spirit?

Well, for bodily beings like us, contact is only present when it is physical as well as mental: telephone calls and SMSs are great, but does anyone except Telstra believe they are as good as being face-to-face?

Is a written marriage proposal the same as living as man and wife? Is sending your child a Facebook message of congratulations as good as actually being there for their special event? No: for human beings to commune we must be physically present – and God knew that from when He first made us.

“God so loved world He gave His only Son” (Jn 3:16). What an awesome thing to consider: that so concerned was God to be close to us, that

He took human flesh. The Creator of the universe became a creature in that universe, indeed that most fragile creature: a baby.

At Christmas time I found myself paralysed from the neck down and reflecting upon “the helplessness of God” made infant.

When we make a manger with our hands to receive the Sacred Host, God yet again places Himself into our arms, as He did at the first Christmas. He is God-with-us (Mt 1:23).

What a doubly awesome thing that that same Creator died for us. Life Himself experienced Death, as that most helpless of creatures: a tortured, dying man. But he did so that He and we might experience new life.

Leading up to Easter I found myself beside the crucified but then risen Jesus, reflecting upon “the helpfulness of God”.

When we make a cross with our hands to receive Holy Communion, God again puts Himself “into the hands of sinful men”, as He did at the first Easter. He is God-for-us.

Were all the flesh-to-flesh contact of Christmas and Easter not enough, God puts Himself permanently into our hands in the Eucharist.

Just in case we still don’t get it, still don’t know how total is His love for us, He gives us His broken Body and life Blood, so His substance can become part of ours.

The ancients thought none could see the face of God and live. But our God is so intimate with us that we can receive Him not only as a thought into our minds or an image into our eyes, but in all His reality, into our very bodies and lives.

No wonder we come back week after week! And there’s every reason to come at other, quieter times, simply to adore Christ in this wonderful sacrament.

When we give, even when we are being generous, we usually hold back something for ourselves, for our loved ones, for a rainy day; that’s just prudent.

But Jesus’ prudence is different to ours: He wants to give us everything, everything He is, everything we could be. He is God all with us and all for us. The Eucharist says this as nothing else could. And it challenges us to a similar self-giving.

So Pope Benedict said on the day of his inauguration: “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.” (Benedict XVI, Mass of Inauguration, 24 April, 2005)

And as Pope Francis said earlier this year: Christ’s presence in this wonderful sacrament is a promise that one day our substance will join Christ’s “in the fullness of His Kingdom.”

But because Christ makes His substance part of ours even now, “it is also a summons to go forth, as missionaries, to bring the message of the Father’s tenderness, forgiveness and mercy to every man, woman and child!” (Pope Francis, Message for the Close of the 51st International Eucharistic Congress, Cebu, 31 January, 2016)

This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral on 29 June.